Saturday 24 August 2013

An Interview with Jimmy Elwing and Aren Roukema

Today here at Albion Calling I am interviewing two young scholars of Western esotericism, Jimmy Elwing and Aren Roukema, who are the masterminds behind the new open access peer-reviewed journal, Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism. We discuss their academic backgrounds and their role in the development of the journal, alongside their thoughts on what open access publishing has to offer scholarship.

Jimmy Elwing (left) and Aren Roukema (right)

[EDW] Both of you are currently engrossed in your rMA postgraduate studies at the University of Amsterdam’s Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, one of the world’s few academic departments devoted to the study of Western esotericism. What made the two of you decide to move to the Netherlands and study there; was the decision influenced by your personal backgrounds or undergraduate research?

[JE] When I conducted my undergraduate studies at the University of Gothenburg, I had the opportunity of having Henrik Bogdan as lecturer and supervisor, and it was largely he who made me aware of the academic study of Western esotericism. Having taken an introductory course in Western esotericism, as well as a tutorial on Renaissance esotericism, I decided to dedicate my BA thesis to the subject—and I really enjoyed doing so. When conducting my undergraduate research I realised that there is so much left to be done in the field, and when I discussed this with Henrik he recommended me to increase my knowledge of the field by applying for the MA programme at the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents. I applied, got accepted, and moved to Amsterdam—and the rest is history.

[AR] For me the decision to study at the University of Amsterdam was personal. I am a Dutch citizen, but I grew up in Canada and had always wanted to live in the Netherlands. I knew about the Center but I hadn’t really planned to focus on Western esotericism, since my knowledge of the field was comprised of whatever I had gleaned from reading Umberto Eco and Dan Brown. However, I was interested in learning more so I took a course with Wouter Hanegraaff. His ideas on the importance of esoteric currents to Western history and culture were very convincing so I decided to further immerse myself.

[EDW] You’re both involved in the wider study of western esotericism, but my readers might be interested in learning precisely what areas of this fascinating topic you are focusing in on? What research projects are you working on at the moment, and will any of it see publication any time soon?

[JE] I have a wide array of interests within the field. In the past I have been doing research on sexuality and esotericism, more specifically on Ida Craddock and nineteenth century spiritualism, looking at issues of gender, sexuality and feminism in the study of Western esotericism. My current research is on contemporary forms of witchcraft, more specifically on what is commonly referred to—at least by some practitioners—as “traditional” or “modern traditional witchcraft.” My research into contemporary witchcraft is largely based on questions of how practitioners construct the history of their witch-cult and what strategies—political, rhetorical, polemical, etcetera—are used for legitimising one’s own religious or “magical” identity and tradition. This also ties in to other, broader questions concerning theoretical discussions in the study of Western esotericism.

[AR] I am actually a Literature scholar at heart, so everything I’m working on involves the exploration of esoteric contexts in literature, usually in its English and either Victorian or early twentieth century forms. Right now I’m finishing up M.A. research on Charles Williams, and I’m also interested in Yeats and Bulwer-Lytton. Following my MA I’ll be doing PhD research on the roots of Science Fiction in modern occultism.

[EDW] Considering the fact that you were undoubtedly very busy with your postgraduate research – having to ensure that essays and presentations were produced to deadline, and that all essential readings were done – what made you decide to add to your already extensive workload and create Correspondences? How did it all begin?

[JE and AR] When we met in the MA programme at the University of Amsterdam, we realised that we not only shared an interest in researching Western esotericism, but that we also had common ideas and opinions on academic knowledge culture and open access publishing. Since we both have been involved with a few student magazines in the past, we also felt a need for a platform in which scholars of all levels (non-affiliated, BA, MA, PhD, Dr.) can publish their peer-reviewed research and have it read not only within academia but also by the broader public. And that’s how it all began.

[EDW] For the journal you managed to assemble an impressive selection of international scholars to fill the ranks of your editorial board, among them Henrik Bogdan, Amy Hale, and Boaz Huss. Were they all on board from the very beginning, or was it a long, difficult process to get them all to sign up?

[JE and AR] We are very happy to have such excellent scholars on our editorial board. Most of them joined up at the beginning as there was a real enthusiasm for an open access journal in the field. Peter Forshaw and Egil Asprem deserve special credit for their levels of enthusiasm and encouragement about the idea and were very helpful in getting everything set up.

[EDW] Why did you choose the title of Correspondences? Was it a clear choice or were you also keen on any other potential titles?

[JE and AR] We came up with a few ideas but Correspondences was always the pretty clear favourite. It definitely won out over Stuff my Prof Says and We’re Doing This Cause the Aliens Told Us To. We just liked the double entendre—the name captures our focus on creating an open forum for discussion surrounding issues related to the field of Western esotericism, and of course the doctrine of correspondences between above and below is an important aspect of many “esoteric” philosophies.

[EDW] Correspondences is part of a wider trend toward the creation of free-to-read, online peer reviewed journals not under the control of profit-driven publishing houses. As part of this, the contributors get to keep the copyright to their own work, rather than sign it over it to the publishing company. I think that this is a really great step for the diversification of academia, putting some of the publishing power back into the hands of academics. Were you both supporters of this wider movement prior to Correspondences, and what effect do you think it could have in the academic world?

[JE and AR] We have both been supporters of the potential of web-based communication for addressing limitations created by particular power structures in, for example, the music industry or the journalism industry. However, these are examples of areas of society where attempts to rejig existing power structures to allow more control by artists or news providers, and greater, more diverse access for consumers, seem to be running a little ragged. We hope that in academia the situation will be somewhat different, but with the ever growing sway of the neo-liberal university it isn’t hard to see a lot of challenges ahead. Open access publishing successfully circumvents the limitations placed on both the speed of publication and the personal control of research, but like other “industries” that have gone before it, the knowledge economy has a lot of other power structures within that will continue to prefer older publishing models, and that have little to do with who is actually behind the publication of journals. Journal ranking systems, for example, are very important to scholars of all levels who need to advance in their careers. It takes a brave scholar indeed to ignore the opportunity to publish in a high ranking journal (most of which are still produced by publishing companies) and publish in a lower ranked open access journal instead.

[EDW] Shortly after the first issue of Correspondences went public, the two of you headed up to Gothenburg, Sweden for the fourth conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). What was the reception to Correspondences that you encountered both at ESSWE like, and does it differ from the reception that you have received more generally? Are you pleased with that response, and is there anything you intend to change as a result?

[JE and AR] The reception has been excellent. We wouldn’t say there has been any difference between the enthusiastic response we’ve received generally and what we heard at the conference. It was great to have the opportunity to make it to Gothenburg and join in such a large forum of discussion on a wide variety of topics and issues related to Western Esotericism. Many of the authors featured in the first issue and almost all of the Editorial Board members were there as well, so we got to swap a lot of ideas for future issues.

[EDW] What is in store for the future of Correspondences? Have you already begun thinking about issue 1(2)? Do you see it as something that you will continue editing indefinitely, or do you think that it will have a more limited lifespan, like the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic that the late Dave Evans and Alison Butler ran from 2002 to 2010?

[JE and AR] We have a lot of plans for the future, but we do not want to say too much before they are finalised. Currently we are working on the next issue of Correspondences and we have received some really interesting articles that we hope will make it to the winter issue. As for our future as editors—that rumour about our divinatory powers turned out to be unsubstantiated. However, in our “best laid plans” we both plan to work with it for a long time and are also currently looking into the possibility of hiring a Review Editor.

[EDW] It seems to me that the academic study of Western esotericism is blossoming at the moment. Not only are there peer-reviewed outlets like Aries and Correspondences up and running, but big, established companies like Oxford University Press are releasing increasing numbers of texts on occultism, and both the University of Amsterdam and University of Exeter have departments offering postgraduate courses on the subject. This being the case, I’d be interested to hear where you thought that the field was headed over the coming decades? Do you see it as constantly growing in size and influence, or do you think it has just about peaked at its maximum capacity? Considering the recent austerity spending cuts that have hit Western universities, do you think it possible that the field might even decline?

[JE and AR] It’s hard to predict, of course. If we had to guess, we’d say that even if the field of Western esotericism doesn’t continue to grow, the amount of research being done in other fields will. We believe that the research that has been done in the last few decades will promote renewed interest in esoteric ideas, movements, and figures in fields such as literature, history, religious studies, history of science, etcetera. The theoretical work which has attempted to highlight the importance to Western history and culture of figures, movements, and ideas that have previously been rejected as esoteric will be, and has already been, particularly influential, as this gives scholars a better framework with which to approach esoteric material. Look at the field of Literature for example. Scholars have been attempting to tackle the relationship of writers such as Blake and Yeats to esotericism for decades—centuries in Blake’s case. However, with some of the new models that have been developed in order to identify what esotericism is and how it should be approached in academic research, Literature scholars can look at these two figures in a clearer light.

[EDW] Jimmy and Aren, thank you for talking with Albion Calling. I look forward to the next issue of Correspondences.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

In Memoriam: Dr. Dave Evans

It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of Dr. Dave Evans, a historian who carried out pioneering work in documenting various facets of the British occult milieu since 1947. A practising magician as well as a scholar, Dave was the author of both Aleister Crowley and the 20th Century Synthesis of Magic (2001) and The History of British Magick After Crowley (2007), the latter based on doctoral research that he undertook at Bristol University under Professor Ronald Hutton.

Dr Evans was also the co-editor of Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon (2009), editor of The Enduring Problems with Prophecy (2012), and author of articles and chapters in a range of both academic and popular outlets. He was also the mastermind behind the Academic Study of Magic list-serve, and with Dr Alison Butler was responsible for creating the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic; these ventures have helped bring together scholars interested in Western esotericism, witchcraft, and allied areas in constructive dialogue.

Dr Evans was a down-to-earth and funny guy. He was very much straight talking, always willing to give a forthright answer or honest opinion, which was probably part of what made him so endearing to his friends. He kindly gave an interview with me here at Albion Calling last December, in which he reflected on his life and work; reading it back now gives an added poignancy to many of his comments. I hope that the interview acts as something of a tribute to him and encourages future readership for his work.

Having been diagnosed with a terminal illness earlier this summer, Dave decided to live out his last days amongst the beautiful scenery of New Zealand.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

An Interview with Brian Hoggard

After what seems too lengthy an absence here at Albion Calling, I’m back with another interview in my ongoing series of discussions with academics devoted to the study of religion, ritual, and magic. This week we have Worcester-based archaeologist Brian Hoggard, one of the foremost researchers into the archaeology of British folk magic, a fascinating subject to which he devoted a chapter in Owen Davies and Willem de Blecourt’s important edited volume Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe (Oxford University Press, 2004). Hoggard is currently preparing his latest project, Apotropaios, a monograph on apotropaic and counter-witchcraft material concealed within the home, which looks set to represent a major contribution to the field. We talk about his research and the role that archaeology can play in the study of folk magic.

[EDW] So Brian, thanks for talking to Albion Calling today; the first question I’d like to ask is how you first decided to pursue archaeology, and what was the academic trajectory that led you to the position that you are at now?

[BH] During my late teens and early twenties I developed a strong interest in local places and wanted to understand the stories behind them. This led to me studying local history, archaeology, architecture and folklore. It also led to me returning to college and then going on to University where I originally intended to study archaeology. I’d started writing a book about Bredon Hill [in Worcestershire] by then however so needed to remain in the area and at that time the best local choice was to do a history degree. Luckily for me the history of witchcraft was part of my module choices and I focused on that in my dissertation too.  When I came across Ralph Merrifield’s book [The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic] it seemed that my background subjects were perfectly suited to doing an in-depth study of ritual objects from the early modern period so I began studying at that point (back in 1999).

Objects concealed behind a fireplace in Pershore, Worcestershire

[EDW] You’re one of very few archaeologists to have actually devoted your attentions to folk magic in the British archaeological record. Off the top of my head, I can only think of the late Ralph Merrifield, author of The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (1987), who really devoted considerable attention to the subject. What made you pursue this research interest, and have you found it easy pursuing such a neglected topic? Do you feel that there have been naysayers within the archaeological community who are sceptical of this sort of research?

[BH] I’ve always had an interest in alternative beliefs and practices so stumbling across Merrifield’s book was a joy. Having just studied witchcraft from the history perspective and discovered that none of the historians in that field had included any archaeology at all it was clear to me that more work was needed.  One of the advantages of studying an area like this is that every new bit of information feels like an exciting discovery because it’s more than likely not been recorded or written about before. There is some work out there on this topic but it tends to be very find-specific rather than looking at the broader subject area.  I haven’t come across many naysayers but the nature of these finds is that they are incidental within building archaeology so often appear as footnotes rather than the subject of papers in themselves.

[EDW] Early modern and modern British folk magic has been examined by several historians (Keith Thomas, Owen Davies etc), so I wondered if you had taken an interdisciplinary approach by looking at the archaeological material in tandem with historical documentation? Do the two sources match up, or are you finding things in the archaeology that the historians just aren’t picking up on?

[BH] The aim is to be as interdisciplinary as is needed to properly understand the finds.  Most of the objects were intentionally concealed and appear to have been deliberately not mentioned in contemporary documents so as not to draw attention to them so often the only evidence is the material evidence. Certainly a good number of practices were written about which helps provide a context for these other, more private, practices.  Occasionally a find will tie up with some local history, for example, a witch-bottle from Essex was accurately dated and this clearly tied-in with the terminal ill-health of a former occupant of the house.  No mention was ever made of any witch-bottles but the evidence was there in the hearth and the history of the occupants was well known.

A witch bottle that contained hair, pins, and urine, placed beneath
the hearth of a cottage in Felmersham, Bedfordshire

[EDW] Occultism and magical practices are widespread in contemporary Britain, in many cases having little or nothing to do with traditional vernacular practices of healing and counter-witchcraft, but I’d be very interested if you had had experiences with individuals who do perform older forms of spell-casting and related practices?

[BH] I regularly receive correspondence from contemporary witches and pagans. Some are Wiccan but many are independent and claim to be descended from and trained by other witches.  Pretty much all of them know about witch-bottles but have their own variations of the recipe.  Written charms are the only other find-type that they tend to speak to me about and, again, modern versions are very different to the ones recovered from old buildings.  One or two witches have claimed to have a book which has been handed down through their family which contain all kinds of magic, herbalism and astrology - thus far none have been prepared to share but they do have a strong code of conduct about that.

[EDW] You have appeared on television on numerous occasions; could you tell us a bit about your views on the role that documentaries can play in encouraging greater public awareness of archaeology and folk magic?

[BH] I think documentaries can be a really good way of outlining the topic for people and giving them the chance to see the objects. It’s rare that they go into any great depth on the subject (which is a shame!) but maybe one day a proper documentary series will be created which explores the objects and the theories about them more fully. Certainly they’ve been very useful for me in drawing attention to my research and encouraging people to report objects to me through my website and definitely they’ve had a role in spreading awareness amongst heritage professionals too.

A dried cat found in the thatch of a building in Eckington, Worcestershire

[EDW] Your new project, which you are currently in the process of raising funds for, is called Apotropaios – it’s a book drawing on your many years of research into objects concealed in houses, among them shoes, dead cats, and witch bottles. It looks set to be a really important milestone in the study of these items. Could you tell us more about this, and your decision to self-publish?

[BH] Apotropaios is the Greek root of the word apotropaic which means ‘evil-averting.’  I’ve been studying the topic since 1999 but with one thing and another I’ve never had the time to get around to publishing it.  I’ve decided that my book needs to be really well illustrated and that self-publishing is the best way to achieve that.  I am also really keen to have substantial appendices in the back of the book which will be useful for future researchers of the topic. I’m just not sure I’d be able to find a publisher who would be prepared to illustrate it to that degree or include all the data.  The plan is to publish something that will be a genuine resource for future scholars and to finally get all my thoughts out into the public domain.

[EDW] And lastly, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what you see as the future for the archaeology of ritual and magic here in Britain?

[BH] There’s still a lot of scope for study here.  Although I have done the largest survey on the house protection topic thus far I am well aware that it is nowhere near exhaustive.  Detailed regional studies (perhaps on a county basis) are needed and indeed more individual case studies. There is so much of this archaeology out there and it needs mapping to demonstrate the extent and duration of these beliefs and practices. It’s an exciting area with huge room for more study.

EDW: Thank you Brian, and good luck with Apotropaios. For those who would like to donate to Brian’s project, and enable him to publish the book to the desired standard, you can visit his Kickstarter link here. But be quick, as the fundraising campaign ends on 16 August 2013; that’s just ten days away!

Saturday 3 August 2013

Upcoming conference: “Popular Antiquities: Folklore and Archaeology" (12-13 October 2013)

I have had the honour of being invited to co-organise this year’s “Popular Antiquities: Folklore and Archaeology” conference, alongside UCL PhD candidate Tina Paphitis and the Folklore Society’s Dr. Caroline Oates. Scheduled to take place at the UCL Institute of Archaeology in Central London on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 October, it looks set to be a fascinating event, and I’d welcome any of my readers to grab a ticket and come along for the weekend. Unfortunately entry isn’t free, but we are offering concessions for those who are unwaged or students, as well as those who are already members of The Folklore Society. We of course will be providing lunch, refreshments, and wine!

This will be the third year that this event has been held, and the second which has seen it run as a collaboration between UCL and The Folklore Society. We have some great speakers lines up, including some big names in the field of folkloristics like Jeremy Harte, who will be rounding off Saturday with a discussion of “Moral Megaliths.” If this conference looks like the sort of thing that would interest you, grab your ticket here. I hope to see some of you there.